I think “Ties” was a good title for this episode, but I also felt like we spent a lot of time treading over thematic ground that was already covered last week. Jaeha, Ki-ja, and Hak all remain entrenched in their respective ideologies, although it was neat to see Jaeha and Ki-ja’s respective worldviews come into direct contact. Of more interest this episode was Yona herself, which is actually a focus Akatsuki no Yona hasn’t had in quite a while.
There are really only four scenes I want to talk about from this episode and, as fun as it is to watch Hak and Jaeha oscillate from buddy-buddy talk to misunderstood romantic advances, they’re also more serious in content, if not in presentation. The first of these is really a bisected mini-arc, in which Yona and her party witness the shop getting ransacked by officials, only to come back later and find a child has been killed. At the first moment Yona understands what’s happening, we see the fiery sun in her eyes that hasn’t been around for quite a while. Yona’s always been the kind of person unable to distract herself from the event immediately before her, but this occasion is one where the “greater good” (not getting caught) interferes with instant positive action.
It seems that Yona’s party makes the “smart” choice in staying out of the situation, but did they make the “right” choice? “What’s the point in being strong if I can’t protect the people right in front of me?” I’m not sure what anime that particular quote is from, but it resonates perfectly with Yona’s situation here. What Yona seeks isn’t some power in the abstract, but the tangible strength to help those who need it. Her entire quest to understand, on display this episode with Jaeha, is a grounded one, one that reaches out to real people and their real problems. If she stays out of situations to preserve her long-term ability to help and people are hurt as a result of that choice, has she done right? Yona’s certainly greedy enough to crave both, but can does she have the ability to do so?
Captain Ginga indirectly delivers this exact challenge to Yona in the form of of her biting question: “What can you do?” Yona wants to overcome using her powerlessness as an excuse, but the only way to overcome that crutch is to attain some form of power. Is her iron will, her refusal to back down enough?
As a friend has pointed out to me before, Yona simply collecting a tribe of powerful bishounen around her does not automatically make her an empowered woman. While there’s certainly an impressive (and validly active) quality to her ability to understand and to capture people as a leader, Yona still lacks a fundamental type of agency—the agency to affect change. At which point does Yona cease to become a figurehead around which incredibly strong people gather and become the active force in her narrative? I think the new OP hints at Yona’s future growth in this manner, but it may very well turn out that we won’t get to see a fully agency Yona before the end of the TV series. She’s come a long way, but she’s got a long way to grow.
That’s not to dismiss how far Yona has come to this point. Her ability to empathize with and understand other people’s perspectives (most notably this episode, Jaeha’s) continues to impress the people around her and is further highlighted by the simple worldview Ki-Ja attempts to impose of the Green Dragon. Jaeha’s dismissive conversation with Ki-ja betrays the lack of nuance in our white-haired bishounen’s mentality. This isn’t to say that Ki-ja is wrong to think the way he does about his own destiny and his service to Yona, but Ki-ja has already encountered another dragon who was reluctant to join Yona and seems to have learned nothing from that experience.
But Jaeha is no shy, isolated creature—he has friends, desires, a life, and a self-ordained purpose. It’s actually quite ironic that Jaeha declares, “I will choose whom I wish to protect, and I will choose where I die, as well,” because it displays the simplicity of his own worldview. For Jaeha, serving Yona would be to violate his own freedom to choose. But, as we’ve seen with Hak and even Shinha to an extent, you can still make a choice under the ties of destiny or a command. By extending a request, rather than handing down an order, Yona has placed agency with Jaeha. Now that he has the ability to choose to serve her or not, he has been, in a sense, liberated from his destiny.
Which is, you know, a really interesting thing considering that Yona was only launched on her own quest by two things: 1) a desire to protect Hak, and 2) a divinely-ordained sense of purpose. But here, she gives Jaeha permission to ignore his destiny and so opens it up as an available choice for him.
It’s as if Yona instinctively understands how to reconcile Jaeha’s ideology with her own goals, giving him the freedom to make the choice he craves. But, as I said at the beginning, this is really just a retracing of thematic ground we’ve already seen covered. The real shifts will come next episode,: Jaeha will inevitably wrestle with the choice he’s been given by Yona as Yona seeks to find the power she lacks. The resolution to both conflicts is nothing is not predictable, but how Akatsuki no Yona will bring this all together is the thrill of watching each week.
(Also, Hak x Yona moments this week!)